No one wants "another Vietnam," the buzzphrase for a protracted conflict with no clear mission or definition of success. And no one (anymore) wants another Iraq, which has turned out to be far longer, and far more expensive, in terms of both human lives and money, than one assumes the Bush administration had anticipated. Nor does anyone want another Bosnia, where the international community dithered for a year while former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic slaughtered his own countrymen.
Libya isn’t Vietnam or Iraq or even Bosnia; it’s probably closer to Kosovo, where international intervention stopped a systematic, ruthless murder of Kosovar Albanians by Milosevic as he sought to thwart an uprising by the Kosovo Liberation Army. As terrified Kosovars poured over the border into Albania, or tried to stay alive by hiding out in their basements, they would plead with foreign journalists. Where was America? Where was NATO? My translator at the time narrowly escaped death in his home town of Pec when a Serbian soldier took him behind his family home, drawing a butcher knife from its sheath and preparing to cut his throat. He was saved only by a last-second intervention by a local Serb who happened to like him (officially, the Serbs and Albanians hated each other, but inside neighborhoods, they often got along). The ethnic Albanians were then loaded onto an open cart and driven over dirt roads to the border, where they were to be deposited into Albania. En route, paramilitary attempted to pull a young woman off the cart, and her family feared she would be raped. People on the cart gripped one of her arms, while the Serbs tried to pull the other one. Angry, one of the paramilitary shot one of the men trying to protect the young woman. [Vote now: Could Libya be the next Iraq for the United States?]
As they neared the border, my translator looked to the side of the road and noted what appeared to be a pile of clothes—abandoned or stolen, he assumed, as residents were pushed out. As the cart got closer, he saw it was a pile of bodies.
The NATO bombings in 1999 eventually stopped the slaughter. Albanians—both in Kosovo and in Albania—were effusively grateful, painting "thanks you Klinton," and "thanks Olbrite" on stone walls in Tirana (their English spelling wasn’t perfect, but it’s the thought that counts). Not only was a bigger death toll averted, but the mission gave locals an impression of the U.S. military as savior, instead of aggressor.
This is what is meant by the term "humanitarian mission" in Libya. Muammar Qadhafi, if it’s possible, appears even more brutal and mentally disturbed than Milosevic (who was dragged off to the Hague for war crimes prosecution, and committed suicide while in custody). While Milosevic was intent on ethnic cleansing, Qadhafi has made it very clear that he intends to destroy the "rats" who dared to challenge his dictatorial regime. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
The United States, of course, can’t intervene on a humanitarian mission everywhere, and it is fallacy to suggest that this mission somehow compels the American military to right every wrong on the planet. U.S. interests have always led to an imbalanced response to human rights violations around the world; this explains why the United States imposes an economic embargo against Cuba while awarding Most Favored Nation trading status to China. And the United States indeed has a security interest in Libya, which is sandwiched between two nations (Egypt and Tunisia) which are themselves in the midst of political upheaval. Sheer geography means Libya is not an isolated problem, and violent unrest in the Middle East has enormous security implications for the United States. But the humanitarian threat is compelling enough on its own.